Tackling holiday myths
CHICAGO — Are poinsettias really poisonous?
Are snowflakes really pure as the driven snow?
Does feasting really put on the pounds?
Sure as sugarplums, myths and misconceptions pop up every holiday season. Here’s what science says about some of them:
Poinsettias, those showy holiday plants with red and green foliage, are not nearly as harmful as a persistent myth says. Mild rashes from touching the plants or nausea from chewing or eating the leaves may occur but they aren’t deadly, for humans or their pets.
Poinsettias belong to the same botanical family as rubber plants that produce latex, so some skin rashes occur in people allergic to latex.
Dr. Rachel Vreeman, an Indiana University pediatrician who has researched holiday myths, cited a study on more than 20,000 poison control center reports involving contact with poinsettias.
“In none of those cases were there deaths or serious injury. In fact, more than 95 percent of them required zero medical care,” she said.
The white stuff
To form snowflakes, moisture high in the atmosphere is frozen by clinging to particles that may include dust specks or soot. Add germs to that list.
University of Florida microbiologist Brent Christner has found that bacteria commonly found on plants are surprisingly abundant ice “nucleators” present in snow from populated areas, barren mountain peaks and even Antarctica.
So is catching snowflakes on your tongue a bad idea?
“There’s a yuck factor,” Christner said. “It’s better than yellow snow.”
He said the number of bacteria in snow would probably be about 100-fold less than in the same amount of bottled water.
“There are a lot more things to be worried about in making you sick than ingesting snowflakes,” he said.
The same things that can make holidays merry — great expectations and family time — can also be stressful. Holiday blues are a real thing for many people grieving loss or absence of a loved one, and wintertime can trigger true but transient depression in some people, a condition sometimes called seasonal affective disorder. It’s linked with lack of sunlight in winter and some scientists think affected people overproduce the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin. Research suggests it affects about 6 percent of the U.S. population and rates are higher in Scandinavia. But contrary to popular belief, suicides peak in springtime, not winter. No one has figured out why.
Hair of the dog
Forget that bloody mary. If extra shots of bourbon in your eggnog have you feeling lousy the next day, drinking more alcohol — hair of the dog — won’t cure you.
Here’s what George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, has to say about that:
“You are in a sense self-medicating a mild withdrawal syndrome by drinking more. The problem is that’s going to wear off and you’re going to have an even worse hangover.”
Alcohol is dehydrating so replenishing with lots of water or other non-alcoholic drinks can help relieve the symptoms. But experts emphasize that prevention is the healthiest cure.
Doughn’t eat it
Bakers beware: sampling holiday cookie dough, or any raw dough, can make you sick. And recent research says it’s not just because dough often contains raw eggs, which may harbor salmonella bacteria. Flour is another culprit. A study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine details a 2016 E. coli outbreak that hit dozens of people in 24 states that was linked with flour.